Reply to Joanne Barkan

Reply to Joanne Barkan

Let me begin by thanking Joanne Barkan for her thoughtful comments. On many points we agree, but on several big ones we do not—about the distinctiveness of the social democratic tradition, its superiority to other traditions on the democratic Left, …


Let me begin by thanking Joanne Barkan for her thoughtful comments. On many points we agree, but on several big ones we do not—about the distinctiveness of the social democratic tradition, its superiority to other traditions on the democratic Left, and the requirements for the Left’s success today and in the future.

Barkan is bothered by my linkage of Michael Harrington’s work, and American politics more generally, to older European political debates. But that was precisely the topic the editors of Dissent asked me to address—and it was a challenge I accepted because I do believe there are striking similarities between the two and that the older stories I tell have contemporary relevance and, in Barkan’s words, “apply to the Western world in general.” Let me start by reiterating some key points.

As I argued in my original essay (and in my book The Primacy of Politics), in the late nineteenth century the democratic Left split into two camps over how to think about capitalism and reform work. On one side stood what we might now call democratic socialists, such as Karl Kautsky. Kautsky, like Harrington later on, cared deeply about workers and the underprivileged and supported practical reforms to alleviate their suffering. But neither he nor his followers connected such reforms to the achievement of the Left’s ultimate goals. This attitude made it difficult for the German Social Democratic Party to devise a practical strategy for using state power to transform Germany’s political economy—and as a result the SPD, along with other similarly burdened parties, dithered during Europe’s crises from 1918 to 1933. This dithering, in turn, contributed to the Left’s losing out to bolder and cannier political groups that were able to offer voters explanations for and answers to their problems.

Opposed to the democratic socialists stood what I have called early social democrats, such as Eduard Bernstein. Although Bernstein and Kautsky had once worked closely together, they came to differ greatly over the correct path forward for the Left. Bernstein, and those who followed in his footsteps, believed that separating theory and praxis was unwise and impractical. They saw reforms as not merely ameliorative measures, capable of easing suffering while people waited around for the end of capitalism, but rather as the stuff of socialism itself—the means that would be used to transform the existing world.

Sweden’s Social Democratic Party (SAP) eventually became the standard-bearer for this camp. The key to the Swedish social democrats’ success was in deciding that the future lay through capitalism rather than beyond it—and that it was the Left’s task to figure out how to maximize markets’ benefits while limiting their costs. The SAP started thinking seriously along these lines as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. By the time the Great Depression hit, they had at h...